“Emotional appeals at missionary conventions fill the mission field with emotional missionaries.” Such was the warning that a senior missionary gave me as she encouraged me to call upon people to give up their small ambitions and go overseas with the gospel. While many messages may move us to volunteer, only the gospel will move us to respond appropriately.
One of the great advances of the twentieth century was the availability of cheap photography. In the wealthy and digital 21st century, photography’s appeal has lessened somewhat as international travel is so cheap and anybody can now photograph anything, anytime with their phone. In the 20th century the missionaries for the first time brought to us photographs of strange, exotic, impoverished, war torn lands. We could see the people our missionaries were caring for and the difference and difficulty of their lives. It was a powerful engagement with the world and motivation to go and help.
But what is a picture worth? It is said that a picture is worth a thousand words and in motivational value that may well be true. The sense of understanding for yourself and the wellspring of concern for the other person are heightened by seeing their plight presented photographically as if you were an eyewitness. But motivating people by a photograph of others’ poverty is not the same as motivating them by the gospel.
The value and worth of pictures is deceptive. Most art galleries place titles, descriptions and explanations of the pictures that hang on their walls. Many provide booklets and audio commentary so that the viewer can understand what they are looking at. The paintings are often not self-explanatory but require words for people to appreciate them.
The same is true of the wonderful world of television documentaries. We are shown incredible images – of animals and landscapes, of towns, cities and reconstructed history – that fill our understanding and appreciation of our world. But it is the voice-over narrator who explains what we see. The visuals are only the backdrop for the silky voice that reinterprets the world for the viewer. The pictures persuade us that what we are being told is true. They move us with a sense of wonder and of ‘seeing is believing’, but they are selective impressions designed to ‘prove’ the truth of the commentary’s viewpoint and move the viewer to belief.
Worst still is the dominance of the picture over the news. If there are good visuals it is newsworthy, but if there is no picture it is less newsworthy. If there are cameramen available the story is news but if it is only words it’s not newsworthy. While the fire burns, the river floods or the volcano spews; the nightly TV news will report it but it is difficult to photograph the hard grind of rebuilding lives and so once the pictures stop the disaster is no longer reported. Photography is powerful in emotively moving the audience, but weak in analysing the truth.
Here was the problem of the 20th century missionary photographs. The pictures of preachers preaching or people praying were not worth showing compared to strange deforming medical conditions, impoverished families begging, refugee camps bulging or old donkey carts still being used as basic transport. Photos showed us a world of pain and suffering; of conflict, war and superstition but they couldn’t show us the spiritual battle that is the real work of the missionary. They couldn’t show the lives of sin that took people to hell, or God’s work of regeneration that rescued people and transferred them into the kingdom of his beloved Son.
Recruiting missionaries is an important but complicated task. What people are recruited ‘by’ is what they are recruited ‘to’. Just as the method of recruitment influences the kind of recruits who will go, so also the recruiter’s explanation of the mission influences the kind of work missionaries will seek to do. If using emotional methods of recruitment fills the mission field with emotional missionaries, then missionary photographs will fill the mission field with (Christian) humanitarians solving today’s problems instead of evangelists addressing eternity’s issues.
Part of the complexity in all this lies in the rightness of both emotions and humanitarianism. Emotions are an important part of understanding as well as motivation for action. Furthermore, emotional intelligence is critically important for people who are going to explain the gospel in another culture. Similarly, any Christian, especially a minister of the gospel, who is unmoved by the plight of the poor and oppressed in this fallen world, has failed to understand the compassion of our Father in heaven or the actions of our beloved Saviour. Jesus was angry with the Pharisees who quibbled over healing a man on the Sabbath (Mark 3:5).
Yet the work of the missionary is primarily that of taking the eternal message of the gospel into the world. Any missionary, like any Christian, may attend to the needs of the poor or the sick, the oppressed or the wounded – but that is not the reason to go as a missionary. That is what the United Nations, the Red Cross and other humanitarian organisations are for. The task of the missionary is to take the great news of the Gospel of Christ crucified into the world calling upon people to be reconciled to God through his Son.
If that is the work of the mission then the means of recruitment must be convincing people of the truth of the gospel. It is by hearing and understanding the gospel of salvation; by receiving the grace of God in the gospel word of forgiveness; by perceiving the lostness of humanity without Christ and of the glory of the risen Lord that the missionary is persuaded to give up all and follow Christ. We become imitators of Paul, and like the Lord Jesus Christ, when we put all aside for the salvation of others – for this is a true saying that “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners” (1 Timothy 1:15).